The first question I was asked after I walked out of Star Trek Into Darkness was not, “Was it good?” but rather “How good was it?” After 2009’s glorious reboot of the iconic sci-fi series Star Trek, with JJ Abrams directing Chris Pine as Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock, the expectations for the sequel were high. Very, very high. Over the previous decade, Star Trek had wandered into the darkness: the original cast and movies of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (with William Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock) had given way to the celebrated TV series “Next Generation,” and the less so “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” and “Enterprise.” The movies based on the “Next Generation” cast started out fine, and then not so much, and the last one, 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, was a dud, earning $67 million, a sixth the box office of what JJ Abrams’s reboot did. Abrams, who co-created Lost, Fringe, and Alias and has been tapped to – gasp! – reboot Star Wars, is a great science fiction filmmaker; his Star Trek was thrilling, gorgeous, epic, and perfectly cast, particularly Quinto as Spock. So, how good was it sequel? Very, very good.
Star Trek Into Darkness starts out a few years after the last film, with Kirk deciding to save Spock’s life instead of following the Prime Directive, the Star Fleet rule that states it is not supposed to interfere with the destiny of another planet or species. In this case, Kirk allows a primitive culture to see the Starship Enterprise. Back on earth, this decision causes him to lose his ship and get Spock reassigned to be another ship’s first officer. But that all changes when a rogue Star Fleet officer (Benedict Cumberbatch) bombs a top secret weapons lab, and, then when they are assembled to discuss it, he kills half of Star Fleet’s leadership. Seeking vengeance, Kirk asks Admiral Marcus (a Cheney-esque Peter Weller) to allow him and his crew to find and kill the villain, who has hidden himself on the Klingon home world. Who this man actually is and why he is doing what he’s doing harkens back to (and rewrites) arguably the best Star Trek film, 1982’s The Wrath of Khan.
And arguably, Into Darkness is as good, if not better. Not only is Cumberbatch as brilliant, fierce, and accented a bad guy as Ricardo Montelban was in Kahn, but unlike in Khan, the character development of both Kirk and Spock are central to the plot. While Spock is trying to understand and accept how his human emotions can exist side-by-side with his affectless Vulcan half (and manage his relationship with Lt. Uhuru, played by Zoe Saldana), Kirk has to deal with his achieving his potential as a leader, his great trouble following rules, and his great trouble accepting Spock’s utilitarian belief that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Both Quinto and Pine do great jobs, but I was particularly enamored with how the taut, funny, and pointed script allows Quinto to become Hollywood’s first out, gay action star. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock kicks ass.
Into Darkness is also the most politically relevant of the films, even if the allusions to 9/11 are not as deftly handled as similar themes were in, say, the Battlestar Galactica TV series. Spock and Kirk’s debate about the many and the few become the central theme around which the film is centered. It expands from Kirk saving Spock and spooking a planet’s natives in the opening to a dealing with – in the classic metaphorical and allegorical ways that science fiction is so good at doing – the moral problems of drones, weighing vengeances against justice, and the misuse of weapons of mass destruction. I think Abrams ultimately avoids delving into the darkness that the film’s last act creates, but perhaps he knows that the key to Star Trek is its optimism about the future. And this makes me hope the next movie is even better.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by JJ Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch
At your local multiplex